I don’t teach Rhetoric classes. I teach Rhetoric students. Like a good rhetorician, I get to know my audience; I know not just my students’ names, but their majors, interests, difficulties, fears and strengths. Through trying to better understand each student, I believe that I can ensure all enrolled are both encouraged and challenged during my course. I hold my students to high expectations; my goal is for every student to produce work that exceeds the limits of his or her own perceived capabilities. I hold myself responsible for creating a classroom where this is not only possible, but likely. To each student I offer a challenge: wow yourself, and I will wow you, too.
Wow! This Course Matters! I aim to make my course matter—to make it useful, relevant, and significant—to the life and vocation of every student. I design my syllabus to include opportunities for students to make connections between our course material and their majors, career goals, interests, and personal stories. I craft both major assignments and in-class activities as occasions for students to learn skills they can put into practice, both in and out of my classroom. During a semester in my Rhetoric class, students plan fundraisers, create podcasts, analyze Twitter feeds, learn how to write professional emails, and practice how to both use and not use Google as a research tool. In a mid-semester survey, I ask students to select several options from a “menu” of lessons (on, for example, “Conclusions” or “Close Reading Techniques”), and I cover the most popular selections in the remaining weeks. This encourages students to see themselves as active agents in their learning, and students also tend to pay closer attention to these lessons “requested” by the class. In these ways, I prompt students to see Rhetoric not as a course that will end after the semester’s close, but rather as an opportunity for students to assemble a toolkit of skills, vocabularies, and habits of creative and critical thinking that they will employ every day.
Wow! We Play? My focus on practicality does not discourage me from having loads of fun with my classes. I am committed to bringing at least a small dose of play to every class period. I hold that taking learning seriously does not preclude approaching learning playfully. I take seriously the value of goofiness. I am not afraid to introduce the technique of back-editing essays by wearing all of my clothes backwards. My students practice identifying examples of logical fallacies with a scavenger hunt through the English-Philosophy Building. We put on plays to demonstrate interview skills or distracting public speaking habits. I aim to create a space that both reflects and encourages the lively, brave, and experimental thinking I expect from my students. Pedagogical play should not be conflated with levity. The comfortable, inviting environment created by games and goofiness allows for a learning community that can tackle discussions on topics like race, religion, politics, and gender openly and respectfully. Play can crack open the conventional classroom in a way that makes room for difficult questions, as well as inventive responses.
Wow, This is Hard. A fun classroom is not an easy classroom. My coursework is also difficult. As one student admitted in office hours: “this is nothing like high school.” Certainly not. I craft assignments that require students to write and think in unfamiliar ways. I move away from standard thesis-templates and five-paragraph persuasive essays and instead ask students to look afresh at the art of composition and its relation to the world around them. One of the major essays in my Rhetoric course, for example, requires students to link a moment in which they “wish they’d said something” to a debate or conversation in the public sphere. One semester, a student emailed me several months after the assignment to tell me that she had experienced another “wish I’d said something” moment, but, inspired by our assignment, she had said something. She crafted a written response (complete with MLA-cited quotations!) and sent it to the person who had offended her. She was proud of both her writing and her courage in standing up for a personal conviction. As she wrote, “I finally took something I learned and put it to use in the real world.”
I encourage students to allow their lives to change our classroom and our classroom to change their lives. I encourage this, yes, because I want them to be invested in my class, but, more importantly, I encourage this because I am invested in them beyond their participation in my class. I want them to finish an activity, an assignment, and even a course thinking not “Wow, I did it,” but “Wow, I did it, I can keep doing it, and I am excited to do it again.”